"Before you can search for truth, you must be interested in finding it." -Miroslav Volf

Sunday, November 29, 2009

All play, no work.

Working the camera at a karaoke bar.
I may try to start a karaoke revolution when I return to the U.S.

From a recent hiking "field" trip I took my students on, in the mountains outside of Xiaogan.

Stopping halfway for rest and to admire the view.

Lunchtime at the top. Everybody brings food to share.

Thanksgiving dinner! The Ann's and I enjoying turkey, cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes, everything...pumpkin pie to follow.

Esther, a sweet Chinese woman, dancing for us after dinner--odd and unexpected, but so beautiful, sweet, and sincere.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Dialogue, I think, I hope

I’ve had some fun conversations lately that I think are worth recalling. (Be warned--slightly longer post.)

I had a rich discussion with a group of twelve or so students at “English Corner” the other day. The conversation meandered from “what our parents do” to “what jobs are desirable among young people in China” to “why we want the jobs we do.” One student commented that, in China, people seek out jobs based on what will gain the most wealth and prestige. One girl in particular wants to be a “primary school headmaster.” I asked her why; she said it was because it is well-paying and would gain her great respect.

I countered the general viewpoint of the group by sharing my belief that, ideally, people should pursue a line of work that fits their personality, their passions, their wiring, that makes them come alive. I told one student that while he was interested in computer engineering, I would not be happy with such a job. One girl didn’t quite get this, thinking I was criticizing the job itself—“why not?” (Essentially, what’s wrong with computer engineering?).

I explained that while the job might satisfy some, it wouldn’t fit my personality, wouldn’t satisfy me. I admitted that often other factors can make finding such ideal jobs difficult (lack of opportunities, immediate need for income), but that we should always consider calling and what we are “designed for.” This really is “foreign” to many of these students, who are convinced that wealth and prestige are the motivators behind career pursuits. But I tried to explain my point of view—that such “rewards” are never enough. One never has enough money, one never has enough praise from others; these can be futile ambitions.

I eventually asked Sarah (one of my students and a very good English speaker) why she wants to be a nurse. She shared her desire to be with people who suffer, to help them, understand them, make a difference; she expressed special interest in working with mentally ill people. WOW. I was so moved by the sweetness and compassion and sincerity behind what she said, in part because there will always be a place in my heart for the disabled in light of my two years of part-time work with this community. But it’s also not every day that I hear such compassion articulated by someone here. I told her I would try to get a hold of a book either by Jean Vanier or Henri Nouwen to give her to both practice her English and read the work of those who have extensively worked with the developmentally disabled.

So I turned back to the money/respect/headmaster girl (Jordan) and asked her if that was really all she wanted. I asked her what made her choose that job instead of another high-paying job. She told me she had no choice in the matter; it was her parents’ will. They chose her major—English Education—which she does not like. This is a common occurrence that is a bit sad and unsettling to me—careers forced on students by parents because of their own ideas of what is best for their children and/or what will be most lucrative for the parents, as children are expected to financially give back. It's a different world over here, where family obligation reigns.

Trying to encourage Jordan in some way, I asked her if she likes “leading”—if she feels she is a natural leader. She responded in affirmation, and I told her something like: “There it is! Primary school headmaster will be a good job for you because you are a leader and you will have the opportunity to lead others!” Maybe it won’t really be the best job for her, but I at least felt it appropriate to subvert the reigning beliefs about vocation by encouraging her to consider her gifts and strengths and seek joy in her job not simply in the potential financial returns or influx of praise, but in knowing she’s doing what’s she’s uniquely created to do.

That topic ended rather abruptly when someone asked me “what’s your sign?” Pisces, I said, followed by several students sharing theirs. Then, another abrupt subject change came when Jordan asked: “do you believe in predestination?” Man, did that come out of nowhere! Maybe in her mind it was a logical next question. So, like a good counselor or postmodern pastor, I answered her question with a question, asking her, “do YOU believe in predestination” and “what do you mean by ‘predestination?’” “That our life is written, written in(by?) the sky,” she said. She then started talking about how Libras and Scorpios are destined to be together (romantically) or something like that; I guess that’s where her question came from.

But I seized the moment and kept it going. I asked several of the students if they shared Jordan’s beliefs; a few “yeses” and one “no”—the “no” being a girl who said she believed in “Buddha.” After illustrating what “opposites” are (black/white, happy/sad) and explaining that predestination and Buddha are not really opposites, I elicited from students the primary alternative to “your life is written.” “I write my life,” several of them said. Good, they got it. (I did tell the “Buddha believer” that I’m intrigued to know more of this religion and would love to go to the local temple with her sometime.)

So then I asked “do you know which I believe?” The anticipation was great, as students got really silent waiting for my answer. “Both,” I said. Several of them either laughed or looked at me like I was crazy. But I insisted that I believed both to be true; that as a person of faith, I believe in God, but believe that I am a co-creator with God, partnering with God to shape my destiny; that God (and circumstances beyond my control) has significant influence over my life in shaping who I am and what I do, but that God has given me a certain level of autonomy and choice; that I am intentional in seeking God’s desires for my life while recognizing that I cannot passively expect God to do things for me. (It took several repeats and some translation help from the stronger English speakers to get the point across, but they got it.) One of the students, after a bit of contemplation, said: “oh, like co-workers with God.” “YES!” I said, “that’s it!”

I tried to explain that sometimes in life things don’t have to be one or the other, but can be both. I worked at this point for a while with a couple of illustrations. But in retrospect, they probably got it pretty quickly, in light of the Eastern values of harmony and balance, of “yin and yang.” I would think both/ands would come more naturally to them, more so than to us in the West. Then again, students here are generally disinterested in religion and have little access even to their own rich religious traditions (though I'm told this is slowly changing in China, as government is apparently encouraging the rediscovery of its ancient traditions, traditions once feared as threats to a country built on communism and subsequent controls and restrictions).

The group conversation closed with a discussion of Christmas, for which they surprisingly have a tradition here: they give apples to their friends as presents. The Chinese world for “apple” is apparently very similar to the word for “be well” or “get well.” So it’s a sign of goodwill to give apples to others. (One student warned me to stock up on apples, because the price will climb immensely in the days leading up to Christmas.)

They asked me what I do for Christmas. I told of my family tradition (which I will sadly miss this year): going to my Grandma’s house, having dinner with extended family, exchanging gifts, then going to a gathering at my childhood church, where we sing, pray, and remember the story behind Christmas, when we believe God became human; and of course, my mother’s traditional pancake breakfast on Christmas morning (might miss that most of all). The incarnation reference produced a couple chuckles, though I can’t really blame them. After all, it is a pretty absurd and fantastical idea to suggest God became human. I can’t argue with that.

I walked Sarah home after English Corner. I was joking with her about the heavy topics we had just discussed, which prompted some more discussion with her. She asked some great questions, sincerely trying to understand me and my beliefs. One comment she made was that many people here are more concerned about moving upward economically (both individually and as a nation) and so have little interest in religion. We talked a little about the richness of the yin and yang concept in Chinese philosophy and religion as well.

Then she asked me for clarity about my previous comments about partnering with God, asking if I was saying that I 50% believe in God and 50% in myself. I clarified the point, saying that it wasn’t a matter of belief I was getting at, but of how God does or doesn’t work in our lives. I told her I believe fully in God, but recognize that (my illustration) if a stranger falls down and hurts themselves, it’s not simply a matter of expecting God to pick that person up; I must do the picking up, though God may have inspired the compassion and thoughtfulness that led me to extend a helping hand. She understood my meaning.

She also explained that Buddhism believes that humans are good, and that life is spent emptying yourself so that “when you die you are nothing.” I didn’t question the accuracy of her assessments of Buddhism, but told her in a half-serious half-joking tone: “nothing? That sounds sad!” While I told her the thought of “nothingness” was unsettling, I do think there is much about Buddhism that is honorable and good. She also juxtaposed Buddhism with Christianity, asking me to confirm that “Christianity believes humans are bad and need God’s help.”

I responded with an answer that again had much in common with traditional Chinese thinking: “are humans good or evil? Well…yes.” I explained the diversity of viewpoints within Christianity and how Christians are historically divided on this question. But I told her that I usually try to take a more pragmatic approach to theology and not only consider ideals but how things actually seem to be. My point being: humans appear to be a mix of both good and bad, so I guess that’s what they are.

I told Sarah that I think of us as being made in the image of God (or as I put it, made to be like God in some ways, or to be like little mirrors that reflect God), but that we have indeed fallen down and need help getting up, that we are lost and need help finding our way again. So are we innately good? I guess pinpointing our nature doesn’t matter as much to me as responding to what's before us—celebrating and replicating the good, eradicating the bad. At least as much as it is in our power to do either.

And actually—I think Buddhism is not all that interested in whether we are good or evil. If anything, Buddhism does lean more toward innate goodness than evil, though I think it also stresses the inseparability of the two. However, good and evil are worldly concerns, and since the goal of Buddhism is not good but transcendence and liberation, good and evil are ultimately irrelevant (an admittedly rudimentary summary).

Finally, Sarah asked me if I believed that “people who do good are blessed by God” and “people who do bad aren’t.” I asked her what she meant by “blessed by God,” to which she cited things like “be kept out of jail” and “have lots of success.” I asked her what she thought; she considered it for a moment, then said, “I think that’s how it SHOULD be.” I agreed with her innate sense of justice, but suggested I didn’t really believe it to be true, at least in this life. I suggested that often bad people are very successful, often cheating or hurting others on their way toward success (I cited Bernie Madoff as an example, which, not surprisingly, she did not recognize…although I suppose his judgment has come with his imprisonment, so maybe he’s not a good example of a “successful bad person” anymore).

I also cited others who have often stood up for good causes, and either been imprisoned for their godly actions (like Nelson Mandela) or have simply had their godly lives go unnoticed because of steady, unflashy faithfulness. However, I did suggest that many religions believe that people face some sort of judgment in the afterlife, where even if they succeeded as bad people or went unrewarded here for their goodness, God or the universe or who/whatever would give them their proper reward “according to what they’ve done.” That seemed to satisfy her. I told her that above all, I personally believe that God is fair, and that God deeply loves every human being that ever lived. That also seemed to satisfy her.

One other related conversation to recall. I was recently at lunch with my friend Thomas, discussing what I intend to do when I return to the States. I told him one thing I am interested in is finding a church where I can serve as a pastor in some form. He was a bit perplexed, asking what kind of jobs there are in churches. I explained that most churches have staff, often a lead pastor and one or more assistant pastors. He was surprised, and confused about where the money comes from. I further explained that a church is essentially a non-profit and funded by people within the church, who pay the salaries of the pastors. Funny…I felt a bit sheepish as I was explaining this. Namely, why would people in the church give money to pay salaries (usually a sizeable portion of a church’s budget) instead of just using that money to more directly meet needs in the community? Well…I guess I better get over this if I want to be a paid pastor, eh? :)

Thomas seemed really intrigued that the religious realm was my hoped-for line of work. I asked him if he knew much about his own country’s religious traditions; “very little” he said. He explained how difficult it is to learn even about their own religions here, as information is so restricted. (Which by the way, hail to Obama, who is currently in China and has been advocating for less restrictions by Chinese officials on the flow of information, especially via the internet with its brutal firewall. This is a human rights issue, but it’s also a “benefit-Matt” issue—meaning, I’d be able to catch up on all the episodes of 30 Rock and The Office I’ve missed because of blocked websites.)

Anyway, Thomas also said it’s hard to learn about Christianity because of such restrictions. So I asked him if he’d be interested in a Bible, if I could track one down. He enthusiastically said yes, saying it would be a great way to learn about western culture and Christianity. I told him I’d buy him one. I’m not sure what is more exciting: the “Bible distribution” and religious interest, or the relational aspect of it—that he’s so interested in what’s important to me. All of the above, I guess.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

So much to say, so much to say

The weather has turned cold turn of late. We recently had a spectacular thunderstorm in the middle of night that sounded like a series of bombs going off overhead—my initial half-awake, irrational assumption. I eventually concluded it was a storm, not an invasion of my apartment. Anyway, such storms precede cool weather here, so hot days and air conditioning have been replaced with chilly days and heaters. And mittens.

This week marks the one-quarter mark of my contract in China. I think what I feel is something like urgency—25% of the year is past…will all my hopes come to fruition? As a person cursed—or blessed (or both?)—with high expectations and hopes, I often face this challenge or “mini-crisis.” On the one hand, the more I expect out of life, the more intentional I will be in my lifestyle and choices. On the other hand, maybe the more grandiose my hopes, the more likely I am to miss the simple, precious moments there for enjoyment every day. It’s a tension to be held. But as a friend recently observed, "(you are) enjoying life’s everyday moments as though they were profound...(and) in reality, they are.” So, maybe I'm doing okay.

I do want to live life as though it were epic and profound—because I believe it is—as long as I'm able to glimpse those epic and profound qualities and moments when they are present (and perhaps subtle). Actually, this connects with my beliefs on purpose. I believe the Christian message should not focus only on salvation, but on opening our eyes and the eyes of others to the goodness of creation: to become increasingly aware of the presence of God in all things, to train my mind and heart to increasing sensitivity to the ways God’s beauty, truth, and goodness are to be found everywhere—whether in the simple kindness of a stranger, the complexities and intricacies of life at the molecular level, the taste of my favorite dish, the wonder of color and light, the miracle of consciousness, or the wonder of God become human.

My assumption in coming to China was never that I was bringing God to China but, rather, that I was coming to discover God in China. I believe in seeking out and celebrating God’s presence in the lives of others—a commitment that lends itself toward reconciliation and peace more than the assumption that God is only to be found in us and our own religious life. It is easy and natural to assume “we’re right and they’re wrong, they need what I have, I possess truth while they do not,” etc. But I think the better approach demands we look for God in others, to approach all people and contexts with a readiness to encounter God.

I recall the Westminster Catechism and its exhortation to the Church to “glorify God and enjoy him forever.” Enjoying God—perhaps done not simply through repeatedly thanking God for saving us and loving us even though we haven’t prayed in a while or lost our temper that one time or whatever. Important things to be grateful for, no doubt. But I’m challenged to think that maybe "enjoying God" means more than just being directed inward to a place of gratitude to what I feel God has done for me personally and, instead, thrust outward into the lives of other people and the life of the world, eager to discover God and God’s craftsmanship and activity all around me. Enjoying God and “glorifying him” might mean broadening our assumptions about where God is to be found, and becoming ever more attentive to the simple moments and encounters of daily life. I do believe we live in a “fallen” world, but not an “obliterated” one.

I suppose this is the theology behind how I am trying to live here in China and what being an ambassador of Christ means to me. I think the most obvious way this can be done is through affirming the worth of others. There is certainly no better model than Jesus himself, who not only made people aware of their need for salvation, but also operated within this “creation paradigm” by opening the eyes of everyone to the worth of the lowliest in society. Jesus pointed out not only our fallenness but our sacredness, not only the ugliness of the created world but its beauty. Similarly, I hope in my teaching and interactions with students that they might sense God’s affirmation and love.

I try to seize the opportunities as they arise. I think of sitting with Grace, Christina, and Anna at dinner recently. They told me I’m "friendly and caring" as a teacher and that they "really appreciate me." I thanked them for their kind words, but redirected their focus. I explained to Grace the meaning of her name, and suggested that whatever goodness they experience from me is not because I’ve made myself into a man of high character, but because God’s grace has captured, transformed, and inspired me. I believe in grace, have experienced it, and seek to replicate it for others. I had to simplify and repeat this a few times, but they got it.

A great thing about our role here is that students generally agree that the foreign teachers are more friendly and caring than their Chinese teachers. This is not meant to be a knock on the Chinese, but a commentary on the warmth and care our students feel from us and our different “style." So…the students here already think highly of us; I imagine the more they understand the faith that informs our lives, the more likely they will sense and discover the power and significance of devotion to the way of Christ.

It’s also surprising how often I am able to share my faith when I’m with students. To all the skeptical, there really is a way to respectfully evangelize. :) And I’m using the word “evangelize” in the way I understand its original meaning—not simply as “proselytizing” but as sharing what we believe to be good news about who Jesus is and what difference it makes that Jesus is who he is. When I get asked about my master’s degree, or why I’m in China, I don’t really sugarcoat my answer. I tell people: “a Master of Divinity—essentially a degree in religion, Christian spirituality, culture, leadership, and spiritual formation.” As for why I’m here: “to discover and learn about your culture, values, spirituality, perspective on all facets of life…and to dialogue with you…because I believe that we both have something to offer one another.” Often times, this piques some interest. Other times, another student chimes in, “what do you think of Chinese food?” Eh…what can you do? :)

These moments arise occasionally, and I do my best to testify to the Truth as I believe and understand it. Just today a conversation about American history led to my crediting followers of Christ (Quakers) with combating slavery pre-Civil War, because they had a Jesus-inspired view of the worth of individuals. I also got into a conversation today with students about what “we want out of life.” I heard “money” and “respect from others” often. One girl said “peace and happiness and beauty” (which I loved). When it was my turn, I told them I want to feel like I know God’s love ever more fully, through my awareness and receiving of it and my ability to pass even a fraction of that love along to others. The opportunities are there to proclaim God’s truth without being pushy or belittling the way others see life. Probably in America just as in China.

On an entirely different note, I must brag. We recently had a big teacher-student soccer match. My team lost 6-4. However…I scored the first goal of the game! To be fair, it was a team effort, as I received a pretty good pass, which was probably the more important play than my actual goal. Still, it goes in the books as a goal for me. :)

On another note: thievery. Mim and Maria’s home was recently burglarized. Several men climbed in their third-story window and rummaged through the house. They were unable to find money, and did no harm to the girls—other than the slight paranoia these girls now deal with—but did steal Maria’s laptop and Mim’s camera. This was pretty serious stuff. The school felt terrible, and responded by buying Maria a new computer and ordering that bars be put on all our windows. As nice as people are here, it doesn’t mean there aren’t a few people who will act in desperation with little regard for others—whether it be to literally feed themselves or to “feed” a computer game addiction (common here).

Now for a bit of irony. Several men were installing bars on our windows last week. They were working while Will and I were home. Around noon they all left—the foreman to return to finish the job, the other three men finished as they were only hired for temp work. About thirty minutes later, I heard footsteps outside of my slightly-open front door while in the kitchen. I looked over and saw my USB flash drive sitting in the doorway, then heard footsteps running back down the stairs (remember, I live on the sixth floor). I ran down the stairs, yelling at whoever was running. I caught up to the man, one of the workers there that morning, and motioned to the USB drive in my hand, unable to communicate with words but giving him a look that essentially said “what the hell is going on?!” He just pointed to his phone and walked away…which made no sense to me.

Will and I conceived of several possible explanations, the most logical one being that one of the men had pocketed the USB drive at some point that morning; then, one of his co-workers saw it, scolded the man, and returned it. He did it secretly, leaving it in the doorway, probably because he knew the whole situation looked really bad for him and his co-workers. I reported the situation to the school, and they are addressing the issue. I guess I got my stuff back, so no big deal. Maybe the man felt sorrow and shame for what he’d done. I don’t know. It’s not hard to forgive them, because the situation is almost more puzzling and laughable than frustrating. Although, it makes me think twice about having men I don’t know in my house. Is that actually unforgiveness, or forgiveness with caution?

One final observation. I occasionally face the helplessness of not being able to communicate. I’ve already mentioned the challenge of trying to order food or buy a belt without the use of words. But there is also something that happens here where people are constantly looking at me and pointing and laughing. Much of the time it’s best to assume it’s positive or sincere intrigue; they either are fascinated by the white American in their midst, or they know who I am and just want to be friendly. But occasionally, when students are in groups, they go into that gang mentality, which usually means I watch several students (usually boys, who are shyer than girls here) talk to each other about me. And there’s not much I can do. I don’t really know if they’re mocking me, so I have to seek detachment and avoid being too paranoid. And I can’t really banter with them, or take jabs at them. All I can really do is say hello, kindly smile back, keep walking if they don’t want to talk or stop for a moment if they do.

It definitely makes me ponder the meaning of Jesus’ silence in his final moments, where he clearly saw the wretchedness in the way others treated him, and could have easily used superior argument and rhetoric to humble his opponents, or could have “put people in their place” by using the same miraculous force that made God human and made a family-sized meal into a meal for thousands. Yet, he didn’t, choosing for many possible reasons the way of non-violence, non-retaliation. I’m not trying to equate these two scenarios, but to point out the challenge I feel to remain peaceful and warm and fight that urge to retaliate that comes with feeling threatened or mocked, instead telling myself “they know not what they do.” Or, maybe in my case, just remind myself, “I know not their language.”

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Friends and Farewells

Some mid to late October photos of some of the important people in my life in China...

Admittedly kind of an awkward photo. But Alex (left), Mark (center), and Andrew (right) are a trio of students I often connect with, usually for basketball—all super thoughtful guys (don’t know the guy with glasses…he just sort of snuck into the picture). Not sure what’s going on with Alex’s waist grab and my slightly-biting-my-lower-lip smile. And yes, those are bunny ears. Boy, he really got me with those bunny ears, didn’t he? :)

It’s intramural basketball season; this is a freshman team made up of girls from my English class. They’re not great basketball players, but they have fun and put on a good show. I suppose maybe the same could be said of me when I play.

Same story, but these are some of the sophomores from my computer class. I love Chelsea’s nervous-looking pose/gesture. But don't be fooled—she’s a feisty player, especially good on defense.

Jesse and I enjoying a hot-pot (Chinese fondue) style meal, where meats and vegetables are cooked by the customer in a simmering pot at the table. This is the same meal where I “enjoyed” the aforementioned pig blood. Yum.

Ok, vote: who went the most all out for our Halloween party? Mim the lion, Dorothy the cat-mouse hybrid, Maria the black cat, Ann the vampire, or Matt the She-man? I’m wearing Mim’s clothes, and used rolled up T-shirts for “the rest.” The students thought it was hilarious, although some in Mim’s class were apparently worried and confused, not sure “why, because he’s so handsome, he would want to dress like a woman.” I think maybe they misunderstood the spirit of Halloween.

Pizza! During our recent weekend excursion to the big city (Wuhan), we enjoyed some American delights—Papa John’s pizza, DQ blizzards, and, of course, Starbucks. As big as Xiaogan is, it’s really kind of the boonies compared to the larger and much more international city of Wuhan.

Playing Mahjong for the first time, a traditional game here. It’s actually a fairly addictive kind of gambling for elderly people, at least in Xiaogan.

A farewell party for Jesse, with several of his long-time friends, some dating back to junior high. He is moving to the U.S. to finish flight school. I have mixed emotions about this; Jesse has become my closest Chinese friend. I’ll say more about this bittersweet happening in a future post.

A good Jesse-and-me shot. I mainly included this because of my Clint Eastwood-meets-Ludacris pose. I think I’m probably more photogenic when I smile.